(New York Jewish Week) — The graffiti scrawled on public bathroom walls may not seem like the highest form of art. But for Jewish comedian and musician Caitlin Cook, a particular phrase she saw on a bathroom stall became the catalyst for a decade of creative inventiveness.
“Since writing on bathroom walls is neither for critical acclaim nor financial reward,” it read, “it is the purest form of art. Discuss.”
“I just knew that this was something I did want to discuss,” Cook told the New York Jewish Week. “I love art history, I love found art, and I loved the way that [graffiti] broke down the idea of what art is and can be. So, I started photographing bathroom graffiti all over the place.”
A few years later, Cook realized she could turn her extensive collection of found phrases into lyrics for songs. And then, after a few more years, she figured out a way to project the original bathroom images behind her as she sang her songs. The project then developed into a one-person musical, “The Writing on the Stall,” which is playing at the Soho Playhouse through Sept. 23. As implied by the title, the musical takes place entirely in a public bathroom; the song’ lyrics are almost entirely quotes from actual graffiti Cook found in restrooms across the globe.
“I think everyone has seen something funny or sad written in the bathroom stall when they’ve sat down,” said Cook, adding that the show “really hits this universal human experience.”
Cook, 33, who moved to New York in 2016, grew up in Los Angeles, where she was raised by her parents and grandparents in a culturally Jewish but atheist home. “Both my grandparents were from very large families who escaped Poland and Belarus and grew up very poor in the Jewish tenements and in the Bronx, then moved to L.A. and made something of themselves,” she said. “My grandma would always say, ‘We’re Jewish, it’s very important that you know that, but we don’t believe in God because [the Holocaust] happened.’”
“I think that was a very common attitude for Jews in L.A.,” she continued. “As a result, I never went to Hebrew school and sometimes I feel like I’m not Jewish enough to be Jewish. Then, other times, I feel I am very Jewish.”
Cook addresses her complicated Jewish identity head-on in “The Writing on the Stall.” Early in the musical — after the show opens with Cook sitting on a toilet, asking the audience for some toilet paper — she talks about being a “Jewish atheist,” and the seemingly inherent contradiction therein.
“I come from a wonderful, creative family that really prioritized education, intellectualism and thinking beyond the surface level of things,” she told the New York Jewish Week, “That search for deep meaning feels very inherent to the way I experience Jewish identity.”
To Cook, this Jewish instinct to sense a deeper message in something seemingly mundane is, essentially, how she came to find graffiti to be so profound in the first place. As an example, she cites a message — “Do what scares you, even if it’s everything” — she found in a stall. It became “part of my life philosophy,” Cook told the New York Jewish Week. “Putting myself outside of my comfort zone, exploring why I am the way that I am, dealing with fears and anxiety … of growing up as a Jewish person who’s always thinking beyond the surface level.”
The short musical (approximately 60 to 75 minutes, depending on audience participation) features songs like “The Difference,” which explores the types of graffiti found in men’s, women’s and non-gendered restrooms. “Girl, keep ya head up,” and “ Love like you’ve never been ghosted,” the women write, while men’s stalls feature lines like, “roses are tits, violets are tits,” and many, many drawings of genitalia.
Another song, called “Conversations With Strangers,” depicts the unique interactions created when strangers answer one another’s contributions to bathroom graffiti. “Follow ur dreams,” one person scratched into a stall. Below it, in Sharpie, someone answers, “I literally only have nightmares.”
“There’s a song about confessional bathroom graffiti [in which] I confess some things about myself and get the audience to confess some secrets, while talking about how intimate bathrooms can be,” Cook said. “[The show also goes into] graffiti that bullies and the beautiful, poetic, sad, wonderful things that people have written.”
Cook, whose previous credits include New York Comedy Festival and SF Sketchfest, alongside iconic venues like The Comedy Cellar, crafted this version of “The Writing on the Stall” with the aid of two chief collaborators: Director A.J. Holmes, best known for his performance as Elder Cunningham in “The Book of Mormon,” and Ali Gordon, actor and alumna of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.
Cook and Holmes met at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the two were performing at nearby theaters. (Cook was performing an earlier version of “The Writing on the Stall.”) “My immediate impression was that the songs crush,” Holmes told the New York Jewish Week.
The duo brought Gordon on board, and they developed “The Writing on the Stall” so it touches on a larger message about finding beauty and meaning in the everyday.
“It feels like everyone wants to hide in the friggin’ bathroom right now,” Gordon said. “Whether it’s on a political level or a personal level, everything has become too much of a mess, the desire to bury our heads in the sand is stronger than ever.”
“In the show, that’s what we find our hero doing — hiding from the party outside,” she continued. “But the audience gets to see how she finds her way out … instead of staying in a shame spiral and beating herself up, she finds beauty in the darkest corners. She uses that to shine a light for the rest of us.”
Cook agrees. “It’s a show about shared humanity and finding meaning in unexpected places,” she said. “It’s about sharing vulnerable stories and connecting with strangers unexpectedly, whether it’s writing something in conversation on the wall of a bathroom, or meeting in a bathroom line, or just sharing a little bit about who you are with someone at a bar.”
“The Writing on the Stall” can be silly or salacious at times, but amid the projected images of crude drawings of genitals and cheery, if oversimplified, “you go, girl!” scrawls, Cook is trying to find answers to life’s big questions. She’s inviting audiences to connect with themselves and with one another by reaching out past the edge of the stage. She’s interested in who she is, certainly, but also in who we are to each other as members of a society that so often seems torn beyond repair.
“The Writing on the Stall” is playing at Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam St.) Wednesdays through Saturdays through Sept. 23. Click here for tickets and info.
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Elon Musk, in live chat with right-leaning Jews, insists antisemitism isn’t a problem on X
(JTA) – Elon Musk called himself “aspirationally Jewish,” waffled on a prominent rabbi’s invitation to visit Auschwitz, and insisted that claims of rising antisemitism on his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, were “absurd.”
The billionaire tech mogul added that antisemitic posts should not be deplatformed, but should instead be met with “counterpoints.” He said that antisemites who aren’t presented with other views online are “just going to be hidden antisemites, and that’s not going to do. That’s perhaps worse.”
As an example, Musk cited Kanye West, whom he reinstated on X after the rapper’s antisemitic tirade got him banned last year.
Those statements and more were made during a friendly forum on Thursday featuring Musk and a lineup of Jewish men, most of them avowed conservatives, addressing antisemitism on X under his watch.
Hosted by the politically conservative Orthodox Jewish pundit Ben Shapiro and his publication The Daily Wire, the nearly two-hour chat was titled “X, anti-Semitism, Faith and Free Speech.” It came days after a call from more than 120 Jewish activists, most of them progressive, for advertisers and app stores to drop the platform, and in the wake of a series of attacks from Musk on the Anti-Defamation League. Musk blames an ad boycott spearheaded by the ADL for the site’s revenue loss, and has threatened to sue the antisemitism watchdog for billions of dollars. He has also amplified antisemitic accounts on X that have joined in condemning the group.
Musk has previously denied being antisemitic. On Thursday, he went further, saying, “in some respects I think I am Jewish, basically,” owing to what he said was his large proportion of Jewish friends.
“They use the X platform and I’m like, ‘Do you guys see anything?’ And they’re like, ‘Nope,’” he said.
He also insisted that “multiple third parties” have verified that hate speech has declined on the platform since his acquisition but did not share what those sources were.
Musk also defended himself from accusations of antisemitism, noting that Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of him hadn’t turned up any evidence of it. “He’s a pretty smart guy,” Musk said of Isaacson. “He might have figured it out if I was antisemitic.”
At another point in the call, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Chabad-affiliated chair of the European Jewish Association, asked Musk if he would visit the Auschwitz death camp alongside an upcoming mission of European rabbis.
At first Musk rejected the invite, saying, “I’m very well aware of the Holocaust and Auschwitz and Dachau and whatnot, and all the things that happened that were terrible. So this is not certainly new information for me. So I don’t need to visit Auschwitz to understand. I get it.”
After Margolin pressed the issue, Musk responded, “I will seriously consider it,” before later adding that he could swing by after a visit to a factory he owns in Berlin.
“Consider it a tentative yes,” he subsequently said. He also apologized for not responding to a petition from Jewish leaders worldwide to push X to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, a widely adopted document that has attracted controversy for defining some forms of Israel criticism as antisemitic. Musk said he hadn’t known about the petition.
At another point, Musk said that one of the main lessons he has taken away from learning about the Nazi era is that “Hitler and the Nazis were extremely censorious. … The Nazis loved censorship, big time.”
The call provided a small window into how Musk does seek to address hate speech on X. In addition to his comments on deplatforming and “counterpoints,” he framed the question of limiting hate speech as a largely economic one, rather than a moral one. “If we just hammer people with hate, they’re going to leave the platform,” he said. He made a similar statement in a recent live chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He also dodged a question from Shapiro about whether he would demonetize or reduce the reach of accounts that spout antisemitism, although later in the call, he did hint that X might begin experimenting with “freedom of speech, but not reach” — which would mean that X would reduce the visibility of hateful accounts.
Musk also would not commit to a request from former Israeli politician and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky to limit anti-Zionist speech on the platform, saying, “I think there is some value to not being draconian.”
The nine Jews on Thursday’s call were all male, and mostly on the right-leaning end of the political spectrum. They included former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz, who represented former President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial and has also often described himself as a liberal; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has acted as a rabbi-to-the-stars and once ran for Congress as a Republican.
One woman who had been scheduled to participate, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s new envoy for combating antisemitism, was not audible when called upon. Moderators attributed her absence, and that of one other participant, to technical difficulties.
Shapiro and other speakers on the call paid Musk a series of compliments on what they said were his positive views of Jewish people and his modeling of Jewish values — including the commandment to have large families. Musk has fathered more than 10 children via his ex-wife, Justine Wilson; his ex-girlfriend, Grimes; and Shivon Zilis, an executive at one of his companies for whom he was a sperm donor. Dershowitz noted that his son is also named Elon.
Boteach even told Musk he could “take credit” for “peace in the Middle East” if Israel and Saudi Arabia reach a normalization agreement, predicting that Musk’s electric car company Tesla would reduce the Saudis’ oil wealth and push them to come to the diplomatic table.
The participants on the call also agreed with Musk that the ADL shouldn’t be the sole voice speaking for Jews. Shapiro challenged the group’s reports that hate speech on X has risen since Musk’s takeover, saying his own experiences with antisemitism have declined.
“Of late they’ve become significantly more partisan in their progressive politics, to say the least,” Shapiro said, saying that Musk “happens to be right on the merits here” and calling his threat to sue the group for defamation “pretty funny.”
In response to a comment from another participant, Rabbi Ari Lamm, that the ADL controversy is “a distraction from the conversation serious Jewish people of all backgrounds should be having,” Musk said, “They definitely have impact on advertisers, I’ll tell you that.”
Tt other times Musk displayed a level of comfort with conspiracy theories on his platform, saying, “I think we’re running out of conspiracy theories that didn’t turn out to be true.”
Musk gave himself a positive grade, on the whole, when it came to fighting antisemitism on X.
“Overall I think things are actually pretty good, but I’m not saying they’re perfect. And we want to work to make them better,” he said. He added, “My entire life story is, in fact, pro-Semitic.”
“I think my values do match that of the Jewish people,” he said at another point. “Knowledge, reading, understanding, debating, these are all Jewish values and I very much agree with those.”
Musk’s conversation Thursday came less than 24 hours after X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, addressed his feud with the ADL at a tech conference in Dana Point, California. According to reports from the conference, Yaccarino noted her own dialogue with ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who she said “continues to question the progress as it relates to antisemitism.” She added, “It is disappointing that there is not equal time given to all the progress.”
In a discussion about Musk’s threats to sue the ADL, according to Axios, Yaccarino said, “I wish that would be different. We’re looking into that.” She later added, “Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to speak their opinion, no matter who they are, including Elon.” Shortly afterward, she reportedly left the stage abruptly.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety who was fired after a dispute with Musk over the site’s approach to moderating hate speech, also appeared at the conference.Roth, who is Jewish, said hate speech had gotten worse on the platform under Musk’s ownership.
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A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial.
(JTA) — Earlier this year, a British Jewish nonprofit received a call from a young couple in the city of Brest, Belarus, who had just purchased a fixer-upper house and needed some help with a difficult situation: Their basement was built from old Jewish gravestones.
Jewish groups — including the nonprofit The Together Plan and its American arm, the Jewish Tapestry Project, founded to aid Belarusian Jewry — have been receiving such calls for nearly two decades from residents of Brest who have collectively discovered thousands of Jewish headstones in their city’s construction. All of the headstones come from a historic cemetery that was destroyed during and after the Holocaust.
Today, an athletic complex sits on the site of the cemetery, which once contained tens of thousands of graves. But by the end of next year, The Together Plan expects to complete a memorial to the cemetery. It is also in the process of organizing and cataloging more than 3,200 remnants of the cemetery’s headstones, which were used after World War II in construction projects throughout the city.
“Currently there’s nothing there to say it’s a cemetery,” Debra Brunner, CEO and co-founder of The Together Plan, the group leading the project, told CNN.
Before World War II, Brest — also known as Brest-Litovsk, or Brisk to the Jewish community that lived there — was home to more than 20,000 Jews and was a center of Jewish culture and study. But when the city was liberated after the Holocaust, only about 10 Jews remained there. Today, it has a total population of more than 300,000.
The Nazis also destroyed the city’s Jewish cemetery in part by selling half of its headstones. In the decades following the war, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and construction materials were hard to find, the gravestones became the foundations of homes, supermarkets, garden walks and cellars. In some cases, the Hebrew lettering on the stones was chiseled away.
The memorial will be erected on what was once a corner of the cemetery, some distance away from the sports complex. It will be made from broken pieces of the headstones that have been recovered over the past two decades and will feature a black granite plaque with text in Russian, Hebrew and English. The area surrounding the memorial will be covered with trees, grass and wildflowers.
Jewish cemetery preservation has been at times a contentious issue in Belarus. As recently as 2017, a Belarusian court approved a plan to construct a luxury apartment building on top of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Gomel, near the country’s borders with Ukraine and Russia. The Brest municipality has pledged to maintain the upkeep of its city’s memorial but did not provide any funds directly to the project. It is being led by the Together Plan and the Jewish Tapestry Project and supported by the Religious Jewish Union of Belarus, the Illuminate Foundation and the charitable Belarus-based organization Dialog.
“Jews have always honored the memory of their ancestors,” Boris Bruk, chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community of Brest, said in a campaign video for the project. “And as there is no cemetery, we wanted to have a memorial sign, or a memorial place which would tell our descendants that their ancestors lie at this place, the people who lived, worked and prayed in this city.”
In 2004, residents, construction companies and homeowners with properties paved with headstones began making phone calls to Regina Simonenko, the head of the Brest Holocaust Foundation and museum, wanting to return them. In 2011, the municipality of Brest approved the construction of a memorial using the headstones. The Together Plan joined the project in 2014 and has been fielding the calls since then.
Apart from 1,287 remnants with writing, another 2,000 to 2,500 headstone fragments without any writing have been collected and stored in a warehouse, where they have been photographed, cataloged and added to a searchable database.
The memorial is being designed by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, who plans to build two arcs opposite each other that each feature some of the headstones. According to his website, Goldberg “sees his work as a fusion between sculpture, landscape, and the built environment.”
“It isn’t a cemetery,” he told CNN. “They are all facing in different directions as if they are having a conversation with each other.”
He added, “One rabbi that we have consulted has described it as being about life rather than about death.”
Goldberg has a connection to Brest, too, which led to his work on the memorial. His family had taken in a Holocaust survivor, the late Jack Grynberg, when Grynberg came to the United States following the war. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of Grynberg’s relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Grynberg was one of only a few Jewish residents of Brest to survive.
In 1997, Grynberg and his son Stephen traveled to Brest together. Stephen Grynberg is a filmmaker who has done work for the Shoah Foundation and was the one who recommended Goldberg as the memorial’s designer. The younger Grynberg is also donating a third of the memorial’s estimated $325,000 cost.
“In 1997 there were no signs of the cemetery,” Stephen Grynberg told CNN. “We were taken there and our guide said, ‘This is where the cemetery was.’ Like so many things with the Holocaust, you can’t really understand them, you just have these complicated visceral feelings.”
He added, “I was just trying to compute the idea of them bulldozing a cemetery and building on it. That was the empty feeling I had.”
Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says
(JTA) — Authorities in Peru have arrested a 33-year-old man who the FBI has charged with making a string of bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish institutions, including synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.
Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos made more than 150 threats, mostly by email, against synagogues, hospitals, school districts and other institutions in five states between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, according to the FBI’s complaint against him, which was unsealed Thursday. Nunez Santos was arrested in Lima on Tuesday, according to the FBI.
The FBI says Nunez Santos, who is Peruvian, embarked on the bomb threat spree after asking teen girls to send him pornographic pictures of themselves and being rejected. He is also being charged with crimes related to those requests, the FBI said.
Some of the emailed threats included phone numbers to contact. Those phone numbers, the FBI said, belonged to the teen girls who had rejected or cut off contact with him.
The tally of threats in the complaint reflect only some of those that have been reported by synagogues or their local police departments in the last few months. None of the threats have been credible.
After Rosh Hashanah, which began on the evening of Sept. 15, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted a total of 71 threats against Jewish institutions in 14 states since July 21. But the ADL, an antisemitism watchdog, cautioned that the real number may be even higher: Some communities, it said, had chosen not to disclose the threats they received, in part to avoid gratifying whoever was issuing them.
The bomb threats targeting synagogues have, in many cases, led to congregations being evacuated in the middle of prayer services so that police can conduct a sweep of the building. In addition, the threats included in the complaint resulted in thousands of schoolchildren evacuating their schools; a lockdown of a hospital; and flight delays, according to the FBI.
The FBI and antisemitism watchdogs did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional people might have been responsible for the recent wave of bomb threats. The threats in the complaint were made to institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, and Alaska, according to the FBI, but evacuations were reported in several other states including several in New Jersey on Rosh Hashanah.
The complaint includes an example of a complaint received by a synagogue in Westchester County, New York, on Sept. 17, the second day of the holiday. “I placed multiple bombs inside the Jewish Center,” the threat said. “The bombs I placed in the building will blow up in a few hours. Many people will lay in a pool of blood.”
At the time, the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee emailed synagogues in the county saying that local police and the council’s own security official had investigated the email and others received in the area that day and deemed them non-credible. The committee emphasized that all threats needed to be investigated, a warning that came after months of recurring fake threats.
Using data tied to the emails, and by investigating the included phone numbers, law enforcement agents were able to trace the emailed threats to Nunez Santos, who works as a web developer.
The five charges that Nunez Santos faces, if he is convicted, carry the potential of significant prison time. The charges of conveying hoaxes and communicating threats across state lines carry maximum sentences of five years in prison. The charges related to child pornography and exploitation carry much harsher penalties.
“Not only did Santos allegedly email hundreds of hoax bomb threats terrorizing schools, hospitals, and houses of worship, he also perversely tried to sextort innocent teenage girls. His actions wasted limited law enforcement resources, put first responders in unnecessary danger, and victimized children,” the FBI’s assistant director in charge, James Smith, said in a statement. “The FBI will not tolerate anyone who seeks to induce fear in our communities, and we will do whatever it takes to put the perpetrators of such actions behind bars, regardless of their location.”
This is not the first time false bomb threats have been called into a series of Jewish institutions. More than 100 such threats were called into Jewish community centers in the early months of 2017 — most of which, it was later discovered, came from a teen in Israel. In 2020, dozens of JCCs received a separate series of emailed bomb threats.
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